Canadian officials suspected the Niger government of intentionally misinforming RCMP officers who were investigating the 2008 abduction of Canadians Robert Fowler and Louis Guay, U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks to CBC News reveal.
Canada's ambassador for Francophonie Affairs, Jacques Bilodeau, made the comments to U.S. officials on Dec. 29, in the midst of a trip to Niger and about two weeks after the high-profile Dec. 14 kidnapping of the two Canadians.
"[Bilodeau] stated that he was perplexed as to why the [Nigerien National Police] continued to focus solely within Niger for the two Canadians and driver, opined that the [Government of Niger] may intentionally be providing misinformation to the RCMP," the U.S. State Department cable released by whistleblower website WikiLeaks says.
Fowler, a retired top Canadian diplomat then working as a United Nations Special Envoy to Niger, and Guay, his aide, were found in northern Mali and freed on April 22 after being held for four months by members of al-Qaeda's Algeria-based North Africa wing, al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb.
The U.S. diplomatic note also states Bilodeau and Canadian Ambassador Isabelle Massip complained that Nigerien National Police had also "mishandled evidence" in the early stages of the kidnapping investigation and seemed unwilling to collaborate with RCMP counterparts.
"They stated the [Nigerien National Police] demonstrated insufficient skills to conduct a thorough investigation when it mishandled evidence (the vehicle and materials left behind in the vehicle) that may otherwise have been good leads in the earlier stages of the search," the cable says.
The two Canadians and their driver were travelling from a Canadian-operated gold mine back to the Niger capital of Niamey on Dec. 14 when a truck overtook their Toyota Land Cruiser and a band of militants armed with AK-47s took the trio hostage. It happened about 40 kilometres northwest of the capital, on the N1 Highway, near a popular picnicking spot considered to be safe.
Fowler suspected possible leak
In his first interview following the abduction, Fowler himself raised questions about Niger's role in the kidnapping. He suggested a high-level leak — possibly in Niger — guided his al-Qaeda captors to him.
"I know somebody shopped me," Fowler told CBC's The National in September 2009. "It could be the government of Niger."
Fowler said the Niger government "hated my mission," which was aimed at resolving a resource fight between rebels and the Niger government by hammering out a royalty agreement that was likely to take a slice out of valuable revenues for government coffers.
He also said the government of Niger knew his agenda the day of his capture.
Niger's ambassador to Canada called the accusation "grotesque" and "ludicrous" — and denied having Fowler's agenda the day of his capture.
The Niger ambassador to Canada was not immediately available to comment on the latest accusations contained in the WikiLeaks document. The cable, classified secret, provides a look at the diplomatic wrangling that took place behind closed doors in the early stages of the kidnapping.
In the U.S. diplomatic cable, it says the Canadians sought the advice of U.S. Ambassador Bernadette Allen about how to handle the sensitive situation.
Bilodeau said a meeting with Interior Minister Adouba Albade had been "no help whatsoever" in getting police to collaborate with RCMP, while the justice and foreign affairs minister were both out of town while the Canadian contingent was visiting Niger to inquire about the missing Canadians.
Bilodeau asked Allen's views on the Nigerien National Police actions and how Niger President Mamdou Tandja might react in talks about the case.
The U.S. ambassador suggested that while the Nigerien National Police might be providing misinformation about the case, there might be another possibility: "That the Nigeriens do not want to acknowledge publicly how easy it is for persons to slip across the border into and out of Niger without detection by Nigerien authorities."
Allen said it might be a matter of pride for Niger not to let its border security shortcomings known.
The U.S. ambassador also stated that various Nigerien security services were not keen on sharing information with each, thus the national police may be treating the RCMP the same way.
According to the cable, Bilodeau, a retired Canadian diplomat , said he was close friends with Fowler for the past 30 years, making the case "much more compelling for him."
Bilodeau could not be reached for comment.
The U.S. diplomatic cable was part of a batch of Canadian-related cables released to CBC News and other media outlets.
An earlier leaked U.S. cable stated the Canadian government paid a ransom to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in exchange for the safe return of Fowler and Guay, though it didn't specify the amount.